Boeing Completes World’s First Drone-Based Aerial Refueling

The way in which military jets are refueled in the air may soon change. In the past, air-to-air refueling (AAR) has typically been performed with a manned tanker. The tanker will fly to the jet’s position, after which it will connect a refueling pod to it. The refueling pod will then carry fuel from the manned tanker to the jet. Boeing, however, recently completed the world’s first drone-based aerial refueling.

On June 4, 2021, Boeing and the U.S. Navy conducted a joint test involving an unmanned refueling tanker. The unmanned tanker positioned itself in front of an F/A-18 Super Hornet jet. Once in position, the unmanned tanker deployed its refueling pod. The refueling pod attached to the F/A-18 Super Hornet jet, which then carried fuel to the Navy jet. This was the first time an unmanned tanker had ever been used for AAR.

Of course, AAR missions are no easy feat — and this latest unmanned aerial refueling test was particularly complex. Reports show that Boeing’s unmanned tanker had to fly within 20 feet of the F/A-18 Super Hornet. With such a close range, there’s little room for error. Fortunately, no problems occurred during the test. The unmanned refueling tanker was able to provide the F/A-18 Super Hornet with fuel — all without requiring a pilot in the cockpit.

They wanted to see how stable it was to be flying in close proximity to the aircraft,” said program director Dave Bujold in a press statement. “They wanted to observe officially, using their trained eyes, the behavior of the air refueling store and the basket. Very important to see stability and [have] confidence that when they approach it, it’s not going to try to hurt them.”

Boeing’s unmanned tanker is known as the MQ-25 T1 Stingray. It’s part of the U.S. Navy’s Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) project.  In 2006, the U.S. Navy launched the CBARS project in an effort to develop an unmanned refueling tanker. For the project, the U.S. Navy selected Boeing as the winner, thus granting the commercial aerospace manufacturer an $805 million contract.

Boeing’s MQ-25 T1 Stingray is an unmanned refueling tanker. It’s been in development for several years now. During that time, Boeing has worked closely with the U.S. Navy to meet its specifications. The latest test reinforced Boeing’s commitment to the CBARS project. During the test, the MQ-25 T1 Stingray was able to refuel one of the U.S. Navy’s F/A-Super Hornet jets.